Friday, August 7, 2009

Monastic Mass

I said Mass for the monks this morning. It was the second time this retreat I've had that honour, and only the third time in my life. I arrived early in the sacristy and made sure that the sacristans and server had done their jobs (they had, to perfection), so I put on my alb and cinture and paced on the "Lesser Cloister." The Lesser Cloister is one of my many favourite spots around here. It is a colonnade portico open on the river side. It's easy to find yourself on a bench there, gazing through the arches at the Great Oak that sits in the courtyard between the Church and the Guest House. Beyond the Oak is the ever-present Hudson River and beyond that is Hyde Park. Betsy and I had the receiving line of our wedding on this cloister. I'll never forget the antipasti-style table that rewarded those patient enough to stand in line to great us: local cheeses and freshly-made pickled hot peppers (my request). Our caterer, Claudia, was incredible.

Pacing in this lovely spot, I wasn't particularly concerned about the upcoming liturgy. It's simple enough, what Anglo-Catholics might call a "Low Mass." No sermon. No singing. Just the Eucharist. On my mind, instead, was the first Mass I ever said. It was in the Holy Cross Chapel, too, and much like the one I was about to say. I wanted to say my first Eucharist here because the place had been so important to my vocational discernment and priestly formation, and I like full circles. I'll never forget the nervous energy, yet the calm inevitability of it all that was also present. How natural most of it felt.

Douglas, OHC, was my Deacon. He was Prior, then, and has now gone on to his reward. I chose Douglas for many reasons. I wanted to involve him, I knew it would mean a lot to him, and I knew, also, that he would do an excellent job patiently keeping me on track. He has stood beside many a nervous seminarian before.

Indeed, when I was about to make my one mistake of that day, presenting the gifts before doing the fraction, he gently touched my side to correct me before I could misspeak. Now that's a Deacon!

He passed away a few years ago, after I moved to Canada, but I find myself thinking a lot about him on this retreat. The only other monks who have been here every time I've been here are Bede and Ron. Most of the rest are at other houses of the Order, or perhaps decided they weren't called to monastic life after all.

So I paced back and forth a bit more, thinking about Douglas and about death and architecture. I thought about how these buildings make me feel. Even though the oldest among them only dates to the 1900's, they make me feel more connected to something ancient than say, The Cloisters in NY or the ruins of great monasteries in Europe I've seen. I think that's because the monastic life is still happening here, and that somehow soaks into the stone, brick, and wood. I can just look at the stone work and feel something. "I tell you," he replied, "if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out" (Luke 19:40).

Five minutes to Mass. I went into the sacristy and put on the stole and chasuble the Sacristan had selected for me. Just then, my glasses broke. A polycarbonate lens clattered to the floor. Not enough time to go back to my room and put in my contacts. I tried a quick repair with the edge of a scissor blade, but it wasn't quite the right shape to catch the tiny screw head, and my pocket knife (which I know works for this), was back in my rooms. I decided simply to say the Mass without my glasses. I'm nearsighted, anyway, so I don't need my glasses to read prayers.

When I sat down in the choir I felt very relaxed and, well, priestly. The feeling continued. I timed the silences by saying the Jesus Prayer in my head. I noted that I couldn't see people's expressions without my glasses, but I could read without straining too much.

I said a collect to the prayers of the people from memory. Once at the altar I felt totally at home. My manual gestures were intentional, unhurried, and expressive of the theology of worship that suits this place and suits me: precise and intentional, neither rigid nor fussy. Smooth like good scotch, with just a touch of bite. When I was learning priest-craft I used to practise setting the Eucharistic table over and over and over again. I watched videos of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and reflected about the most direct and best way to, say, cup the chalice with one hand to wipe out the interior with the other. In the seminary chapel I used to study and critique the various styles of manual gesture that our professors would use when they celebrated mass. Rowan Greer's humility and respect for the tradition. Marilyn Adam's extemporaneous genuis. Brian Spink's minimalism.

Since then, and since saying my first Mass at Holy Cross some six years ago, I've done this probably a few hundred times, and most of the movements I worked so hard to learn are now mostly automatic. Still, when someone else is celebrating I almost always watch their hands. You can tell a lot about a priest by his or her hands.

After that first Eucharist six years ago, I stood in the chancel and gave blessings individually (an old tradition). A few of the people who came forward also kissed the palms of my hands (an even older tradition). It was a tender moment. It made me think about one of my favourite prayers when I was in college. I used to put my hands, palms down, on the Holy Table (they would never call it an altar) in the college church and pray that God would make them instruments of healing. A dangerous prayer, be careful what you ask for!

The monks' hands as they came forward to receive--so different from each other, not alike at all. One monk sort of rolled his hands out like they were flower petals. Another seemed to make them incredibly flat. Yet another didn't receive at all due to an allergy, but instead bowed and bid a blessing.

At the credence table doing ablutions, I looked Mary in the eye through a very old icon. This particular icon was once stolen from the monastery by an overzealous Orthodox Christian--"Anglicans don't deserve Icons"--his parish priest brought it back with apologies.

Walking back to my bench. Feeling the patient silence. So natural was the walk that I could have closed my eyes and found my seat my intuition. No need to remind myself not to walk too fast, the pace to walk was there. Right there, in my body. A monastic walk.

More silence. My thoughts drift for a moment and I bring them to heel with the Jesus Prayer timed to my breath. I brought my attention back to the room, was anyone restless? No, just the vastness of the silence. I took another breath. It felt right to end, so I stood up and said the closing prayers. Back in the sacristy I looked up at the crucifix above where the celebrant vests and was moved to pray a particularly heart felt set of petitions, then I carefully put the vestments away.

The last few days of the "Long Retreat" have been very intense for me. All this silence is really starting to shift and transform things for me. Yesterday I almost cried when Father Superior poured my a glass of water at supper. We didn't say anything to each other, of course, he just saw me reaching for a glass and went ahead and filled it with the pitcher he was holding. No need to say thank you, he understood I was thinking it. I also got a little teary when Br. Jim gave an amazing Tranfiguration sermon. It was personal but relevant, and like the best sermons makes Christ's presence felt as much from the "how" it was delivered as the "what" of the message. In the afternoon I felt both sick and tired, so I went down for a nap and couldn't rouse myself for Vespers. I'm not required to go to Offices, of course, so I'm trying not to reproach myself too much for this.

This is deep stuff. Yesterday I thought about how this retreat has been uniquely challenging to other times I've been here for extended periods. The last time I was here there were three of us "Residents" in the guest house, and we had quite the little confraternity going. Lots of mutual support. We shared common challenges and joys. But this time the only two Residents on the property are up in the gate house, so I mostly only see them at meals and liturgies. Being here for an extended period as a Resident or even a long-term guest is a lot harder than most of the monks realize. On their side of the cloister they have patterns and relationships that support them. On this side of the cloister you have to improvise. Since the monks have been in silence for more than a week, I haven't been able to get that support from them, so I've tossed it up to the Holy Spirit. She makes a pretty good Spiritual Director, as it turns out, but demanding.

The food has been a nice consolation to my spirit. Edward, the cook, outdid himself for several of the meals we've had during this Long Retreat. The warm scallop and greens salad he made on Thursday was so good I had to go out of my way to tell him so, despite the silence! We had a homemade cheesecake with local raspberries last night that was to kill for. Still, I've made a rule not to go for seconds, and have even managed to loose a pound or two.

Things swing back toward "normal" tomorrow. I'm hoping to have a nice long talk with a couple of folks before they head of for their vacations. (Yes, monks take vacations, too!) I'm also looking forward to sharing some of my experiences from this retreat with them. I'm sure they have stories to tell, as well!


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